Friday, January 31, 2020

2020 - Looking Ahead and Looking Back

It's that time of year again: the end of one year and the start of the next. It's my cue to take a look back at the year that was and plan for the coming year. This is a ritual I've followed on this blog for several years. In our extreme climate the weather makes its own statement this time of year. Antenna and tower work stops or slows for several months.

Over the winter my radio activities are mostly confined to indoor activities, whether it be operating, equipment work or planning for the future. There is always a lull during the changeover as priorities reset and a human tendency to "hibernate". Soon enough the energy returns as the sun begins its long climb out of the winter solstice. This is an opportune time to look back and consider the path ahead as I do each year since starting this blog 7 years ago. Even so I have been active outdoors, as you'll discover.

This article is of the type that will interest few readers. I do it for myself, to honestly measure my progress and to plan for the future. What readers may get from it is the discipline of making a plan and being accountable, so unlike new year resolutions which are lightly made and soon forgotten. Anyone can check on how I'm doing by comparing my written plan at the start of the year and my year end review. Although I almost always fall short I still prefer to think big.

If this is not the type of article that is of interest to you, stop reading. For everyone else you are welcome to follow along. What's a little different this year is the combining of the 2019 review and 2020 plan in one article.

If you do continue reading keep in mind my primary interests in ham radio determine the projects I take on. These are contests, DXing and playing with antennas. Even if these are not your cup of tea hopefully there are ideas and thoughts that will be of interest.

I called 2019 the year of the yagi for the major activity in my station building plan. It didn't go as fast as planned. The new 140' (40 meter) tower had to be raised and the details of large HF yagi home brew construction ate up the calendar. Even so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was just a little further away than estimated.

As matters stand 2020 will be the final year of the intensive phase of station building that began with my move to this QTH over 3 years ago. In 2021 I'll most likely be tying off loose ends and focussing on matters in the shack and operating. Things inevitably break so maintenance is always there to be done.

15 and 20 meters

The 15 meter and 20 meter stacked yagis are partially complete. The side mounted lower yagis are up and working. As of this writing only the 20 meter yagi is usable since the 15 meter yagi needs another 100' (30 m) of coax on the tower to reach the main run of Heliax to the shack. A future article will cover the side mount yagis, including some of the lifting and mounting details and initial performance insights.

All this work was done this month with the help of VE3DQN and VE3KAE who, like me, know that the best way to survive a Canadian winter is to go outside and do something!

The upper rotatable yagis are partly assembled and will wait for warmer weather to be lifted. You can see them in foreground. The nearly complete 15 meter yagi is on the left and the bare 20 meter yagi boom is on the right. The 20 meter upper yagi will be a monster weighing ~115 lb (52 kg) that requires careful thought to the lifting process. I redesigned the 20 meter boom to be more robust.

The prop pitch motor for the upper 15 and 20 meter yagis is partially disassembled in my workshop. I am performing preventive maintenance so that it is as reliable as possible. The mounting position for the motor will make it inconvenient to pull out for repair. More on this when the rotation system is complete and installed, hopefully this spring.

For the present the TH6 and TH7 on the other tower will remain as they are until I make progress on 40 meter yagis. The TH6 is fixed approximately south up 23 meters as a contest multiplier antenna to Caribbean, Central America and South America, at which it is very effective. It is also used to work the southeast and south-central US. The TH7 up 43 meters is used for long haul DX and the west coast. Eventually the TH7 will come down the tower to be stacked with the TH6.

When the stacks are complete I will have excellent instant compass coverage for DX contests. In everyday use I can pounce quickly on a DXpedition without having to rotate an antenna in the needed direction. Those prop pitch motors are powerful but can take up to 2 minutes to turn 360°.

Until the sunspots return I am content with the two tri-band yagis for 10 meters. I expect to design, build and install a 10 meter stack on the 43 meter tower as early as 2021. Along with the tri-band yagis this will position me well on 10 meters during the productive high sunspot years. That time is closer than you think!

40 meters

This band is a dilemma. My long term goal is to have a full size 3-element yagi on the 43 meter tower. I have been investigating electrical and mechanical designs and I've talked to a few hams with one of these monsters. A friend with a full size 3-element yagi sent me pictures of it under the weight of at least ¼" of ice. It looked awful yet it bounced right back when the ice melted. His antenna weighs substantially more than the one I'm planning.

No reasonably survivable element is less than 50 lb (23 kg). Add two more elements and a boom and the antenna is certainly going to weigh 250 lb (115 kg) or more and have a cylindrical wind surface of about 30 ft². I decided to proceed in steps. At some point I will decide I've gone far enough for my comfort with a smaller design or continue all the way. Later in the year I'll talk more about this subject.

Step one is to make a full size rotatable dipole and put it up 46 meters. I will see how it performs relative to my other 40 meter antennas and, importantly, how it survives at least one cycle of seasons. We get a lot of ice storms and that is the greatest danger. For most hams it is high winds.

Unfortunately I failed to get the dipole up this year. In preparation for it I lowered the XM240 from that 46 meter high perch and put it back on the Trylon tower where it is up 21 meters. I have no other 40 meter antenna. When the XM240 developed a problem during CQ WW CW my score suffered accordingly. That is the danger of getting only halfway through an annual plan.

I will get the dipole up sooner rather than later. Although I scavenged part of it to repair the ice storm damaged 80 meter vertical yagi it is readily replaced with aluminum on hand.

In addition to these two antennas I hope to put up a wire yagi on the same tower this fall. It will be at least 3 elements and pointed at Europe to boost my contest scores. Making it reversible remain a possibility but not a necessity with the XM240 for working the North American and further south.

80 meters

I am pretty well set up on this band so no major changes are on my priority list for 2020. Alternatives to improve the performance of the 80 meter vertical yagi were touched on in previous article and will be dealt with as time (and ticks) permit. Adding yagi operation for SSB is not a priority since my interest in SSB contests is not high. That may change.

The high inverted vee can remain for the present since it is low maintenance and gives me a fallback in case the yagi suffers a catastrophic failure. Other antenna ideas are shelved for reconsideration further into the future.

160 meters

My top priority is to add 160 meters to the 80 meter vertical yagi before haying season gets underway this spring. That will give me year round access to the band. It's a simple addition -- a coil -- since everything else is installed including a switch on the operating desk.

After haying is done and the time comes to reinstall the T-top vertical there will be changes. The first is to reconfigure the element to raise the radiation resistance and thereby improve efficiency. The set of 8 × 30 meter long radials will be at least doubled for added efficiency. Between these two changes I expect from 1 to 2 db of improvement.

Considering how marginal conditions usually are on top band the small improvement will pay dividends in contest scores and DXing. Gain and directionality with two or more elements is left to future years when I have more time to play with various designs.

Receiving antennas

This winter I have lower receive antenna capability on the low bands than last year. I did not reinstall the west Beverage so all I have is the northeast Beverage. It's a great antenna but not nearly enough. Especially now that I'm using the amplifier more often it would help me to work the weaker stations that call me.

I have admittedly given priority to transmit antenna. Since, as they say: you can't work 'em if they can't hear you. Okay, that's not really what they say but you get the idea. I can no longer defer work on receive antennas.

With some imagination I see Beverage antennas
My dilemma is whether to stick with the tried and true Beverages or switch to vertical arrays. The vertical arrays require more work and deliver better RDF (receiving directivity factor). I have ample room on my 48 acres (20 ha) for both although the feed line lengths can extend many hundreds of meters. The antennas, feed lines and remote switching systems would be difficult to access for over 6 months out of the year.

My tentative decision is to proceed with Beverages. Additional RDF is helpful for general DXing but not for contesting; in contests some leakage that will let me hear callers from other directions is a feature not a bug.

I want to install at least one reversible Beverage this winter pointing north/south or east/west. The second will go in next fall after the first killing frost. I also hope to make the northeast Beverage reversible northeast/southwest. That will give me 6 directions on all the low bands.

The switching system can be kept reasonably accessible (out of the thick bush). The cabling and switching requirements are modest. I have trenches to dig this spring and that is my opportunity to lay the infrastructure for the system.

Operating equipment

There will be changes inside the shack as well as outside. The major planned changes are to replace the FT950 with a modern high-end transceiver. That and a 160 to 6 meter amplifier will put me in good stead for SO2R and multi-op contests and provide a degree of redundancy should something fail. I do not want to be in the position again where an amplifier fails during a contest and there is no backup. I delayed replacing the FT950 in 2019 since my SO2R and multi-op progress has lagged.

The operating desk will be replaced. Although I love my hand built desk (made in 1985 with the help of a woodworking friend) it is unsuitable for multi-op contests. I have developed a design to meet my needs and most of the lumber is on hand. It'll be cheap but functional. With a bit of paint it can be made presentable as a piece of furniture.

With the addition of a second prop pitch rotator and just the one power supply and control unit I am planning to home brew a control panel to allow operation of both. Not being able to turn both motors at the same time should be acceptable although I can always build another or larger power supply later. A new position indicator is being designed, possibly with software for at least the display function. I have candidate designs that will lead to implementation later this year.

Station automation and contesting equipment

For a complete two position contest station I need the following:
  • Band pass filters for 160 through 10 meters. These will be placed between the rigs and amplifiers. They must be automated so that the filter follows the rig. Outside of contests the filters will be bypassed. These will be commercial products. Additional harmonic filter stubs are not planned this year and will only be added in future as experience dictates.
  • Antenna switching: The manual switching system will be automated. I am leaning toward a home brew software-controlled system. It must follow the rigs and support multiple antennas per band, multi-band antennas and non-contest band antennas. I will likely retire the existing 8 × 2 switch, which has insufficient ports and ongoing performance problems, and opt for a home brew system. It is probable this project will be delayed to next winter.
  • SO2R control system: I recently purchased and built the SO2R Mini kit. It will replace the WinKeyer and my manual headphone splitter. It has microphone switching for SSB contests which my home brew SO2R starter system doesn't have. It's the box on the right.
  • A second networked PC will be needed for multi-op logging software. I use N1MM Logger+ and I plan to stick with it. The SO2R Mini work with Logger+ software.

Future years will likely see more improvements to station automation and possibly remote operation capability.

VHF and other HF bands

I would like to return to more active VHF DXing. At present my only VHF antenna is the Cushcraft A50-6 for 6 meters. This antenna must come down for adjustment because the gamma match slipped when it was lifted two years ago. I want to correct the 1.7 SWR before I buy an amplifier. The rig's ATU is sufficient for the present. My immediate aim is to achieve 6 meter DXCC using FT8. My country count over the previous two sporadic E seasons is 71. It won't be easy!

Last year I replaced the old RG213 transmission line with LMR400. This is better but still not good enough. Now that I know I have enough Heliax to spare the LMR400 will be replaced with LDF5-50A. It will run directly into the shack instead of going through the 8 × 2 antenna switch where it is occupying a valuable port. Over the winter it is disconnected (except during the RAC Winter contest) to make room for new antennas on the antenna switch.

I have a 7-element 2 meter antenna in my junk pile that I may put underneath the 6 meter antenna. With a remote antenna switch to select between them I will have all the VHF antennas I want for now. Of course I will need a 2 meter rig since I sold my VHF and UHF equipment many years ago while I was out of the hobby.

I'll admit I've given little thought to other HF bands. The big gaps are 30 meters and 17 meters. The latter I can do reasonably well using the ATU into the XM240 40 meter yagi. For 30 meters all I have is the 80 meter inverted vee. It performs poorly since on the antenna's third harmonic there are many lobes and nulls in the azimuth pattern. On some stations it works well and on others it is awful.

Anything I do for 30 and 17 meters will be simple. It isn't worth the effort in 2020 considering the many important projects I have planned. The best I'll accomplish is software designs for antennas to be considered in 2021.


With this annual ritual out of the way the blog with return to antenna and operating topics. I have quite a few projects in progress so there will be lots to write about. There are several draft articles in the pipeline which are begging for more of my time to finish them. Winter antenna work will continue, weather permitting.

You can comment on articles, but realize that because of all the spam I get these are moderated. Direct email is to my call sign at Readership is stable to rising and I often hear from hams on the air that they follow the blog. I hope you are enjoying it. Among the mix of topics there should be something for most everyone.

I am not an expert in any one technical or operating aspect of ham radio and I try to steer readers to reliable external resources where appropriate. I try my best to avoid the myths and guesswork that is all too common among hams.

Onward to a new decade. For my amateur radio pursuits it may be the best one yet. May your decade be the same. 73

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Air Core Coax Chokes: Good, Bad and Ugly

Ugly coax choke, but it worked
To give you an idea of how effective a poorly made air core coax common mode choke can perform I'll refer you to one of the oldest articles in this blog. It's wound with spliced together lengths of RG58 I pulled out of a junk box. It's ugly yet it worked beautifully, in that it solved the common mode problem I had with an end-fed antenna.

Common mode chokes on antennas can be very beneficial. All kinds of ills result from RF currents flowing on the exterior of the coax, on both transmit and receive. However it is surprisingly easy not to recognize the problems since they are often blamed on other causes such as proximity to the antenna, a poor receiver and cheap consumer electronics, among others.

It is usually easy to install a common mode choke so there is no reason not to do so even if there are no obvious common mode ills present. The choke presents a high impedance on the coax outer shield surface to prevent conducted current on the coax. The impedance can be a resistance or a tuned circuit, with the former having the most predictable characteristics and being broad band and the latter being narrow band with relatively unpredictable characteristics.

I am not here to tell you how to choose or build a common mode choke. For that I'll refer you to the experts. Probably the best explanation, analysis and recommendations was written by K9YC. There you'll learn that the best chokes use large ferrite toroids, wound with the coax itself or even THHN electrical wire. Instead I'll speak to a commonly used and admittedly inferior solution: the air core coax choke -- in this article I'll often call it a "coax choke" for brevity.

I've used many over the years, sometimes because I was cheap and it's easy to make. It is nothing more complicated that the coax wound into a coil. The coil inductance itself has choking properties, as does any inductor. However most of the choking is courtesy of the distributed capacitance among the turns that in combination with the coil inductance forms a resonant circuit. If the circuit has a high impedance at the frequency of operation (resonant) it can work very well indeed.

Unfortunately it's easy to get it wrong or to have unreasonably founded expectations. Most hams don't have a two port VNA (vector network analyzer) or the expertise to use them properly. I don't have one either. The question is: can we rely on an unmeasured coax choke to be effective?

Before going further we have to review what we mean by effective. What effect? How much? Without a clearly defined problem to solve or an operating objective to be met there is the risk of doing too little or too much. At least with the latter you can be successful though perhaps at a price or time investment that isn't strictly necessary.

To study effectiveness let's briefly list the potential benefits of common mode chokes:
  • Antenna impedance: Common mode on the coax will alter the antenna feed point impedance. This may be unnoticed since when we tune the antenna (e.g. beta or gamma match) that component of the impedance is accounted for. However that may be insufficient since the common mode impedance can vary widely with frequency, especially when a reactive choke such as a coax choke is employed.
  • EMC (electromagnetic compatibility): RF travelling down the coax will radiate. In our dense neighbourhoods this places the "antenna" closer to us and our devices. There is an increased probability of EMI to those devices and received EMI from those devices. Expect the tower and other cables to join the fun since the common mode current will couple to those parallel conductors.
  • Antenna pattern: Even a small amount of radiation from the coax can ruin otherwise good antenna directionality. When the F/B is 20 db or greater it takes very little undisciplined radiation from reducing that to 10 db or worse. Routing the coax perpendicular to the antenna reduces induced RF but does little to suppress conducted common mode RF.
Coax chokes are very attractive since they are cheap, easy to construct and can work well in select situations. Let's consider them with respect to the above metrics.
  • Modest choking is sufficient to avoid difficulties with the antenna impedance. Once the choke impedance is above ~500 Ω further improvements have negligible impact.
  • EMC is not a large problem in my station since the towers and antennas are far from the house and my neighbours are far away. This isn't typical of most hams. I can get away with a little leakage.
  • Very little choking is needed to protect antenna gain. Directionality requires better choking. For an omni-directional antenna this is of low importance. I am more interested in gain than directionality since my primary interest is contesting where it can be beneficial to attract callers from directions other than where the antenna is pointing. 
  • For low band receive antennas such as Beverages and vertical arrays the use of high impedance common mode chokes is mandatory. These require ferrite cores to cover both 160 and 80 meters. Besides which a coax choke at 1.8 MHz is quite large and difficult to build, and can actually be more expensive than a ferrite core choke.
A common impedance objective for common mode chokes is at least 5000 Ω, or 100× the nominal antenna feed point impedance. This is difficult to achieve with a coax choke. You can do it on a single band but may need to be optimized with the aid of a two-port VNA. They are narrow band since their resonance (LC tuned circuit) is sensitive to construction technique.

"Scramble wound" coax choke that I made in ~1987 for a TH6: bad!

The scramble wound choke pictured above replaced the original burned out BN86 balun on my TH6 ~30 years ago; the Hy-Gain voltage balun is in any case a poor choice for a common mode choke. Asking a coax choke to be effective across the 2:1 frequency range of a tri-band antenna is inordinately optimistic. I could say the choke "worked" in that I didn't have any obvious common mode problems. It is likely that it had a choking impedance of less than 500 Ω on one or more of the three bands. Depending on circumstances and expectations even that small an impedance can be considered effective.

There are impedance measurements for a variety of coax chokes available. Most hams would prefer to rely on those rather than do their own measurements, in the hope that they deliver the published performance. The important parameters are diameter, coax type (outer conductor OD) and winding style (solenoid, scramble wound, etc.). Scramble wound is the easiest (see picture above) but has unpredictable performance due to the unpredictable L and C values.

One resource I've turned to many times is the measurements of various air core and ferrite core coax chokes by G3TXQ (SK). I've extracted part of the table below since I cannot assume that the web site will be around forever now that he's passed on. This is the data by which I recently made chokes for my new 15 and 20 meter stacked yagis.

These are solenoid wound coax chokes. Always wind air core coax chokes in this manner and never use scramble winding. That's the only way to achieve predictability performance. Notice in the table how difficult it is to make a high impedance coax choke that covers more than one HF band. You can do reasonably well if, like me, your station and operating style can tolerate imperfection.

For the 15 meter yagis I used 5 turns and 6" diameter of LMR400UF. On the above chart you can see that I interpolated between two known designs to get one that has the diameter and turns count that I prefer for the chosen coax. The PVC strips and cable ties hold the turns in a solenoid form. Tape was used while winding the coax to keep the diameter consistent and to discipline the turns. A temporary form can be used if you have one of the desired diameter.

Solenoid wound single-band 15 meter coax choke: good!

Pay close attention to the bending radius specifications of the coax before winding your choke. I prefer to use RG213 or the ultra flex version of LMR400 since they are more flexible. Greater care must be take with foam dielectric coax to prevent the centre conductor from pushing through the foam and shorting to the outer conductor or altering the impedance.

These danger of excess or repeated bending can take months or years to manifest so build carefully and don't rely on a one time measurement. Avoid bending the coax more than once, especially with LMR400 with its solid centre conductor, since the minimum bend radius is far higher for multiple bends. Study the mechanical properties specs and use accordingly.

Here's the same choke installed on a 15 meter yagi. One of the PVC clamps doubles as a boom clamp. Yes, I do antenna and tower work in winter! Shortly after the picture was taken the antenna was trammed to 100' (32 m). The yagi is side mounted and fixed northeast as the lower yagi in the stack.

Speaking of stacking, if you use common mode chokes of any variety in a stack it is important to use the same choke (or current balun) on all yagis in the stack. Otherwise there will be a phase shift. Unless you compensate for the phase shift, gain and lobe formation for the stack will suffer. For these coax chokes I measure the length and type of coax, data which I'll use to ensure the yagis are fed in phase.

As much as I love coax chokes I avoid them for multi-band antennas and receive antennas. Almost all my tri-band yagis and lower frequency antennas have commercial ferrite core chokes that have high impedance across the bands the antennas cover.

My Beverage receiving antennas use binocular ferrite core 1:1 transformers at the feed points. It is also good practice to use them at the switching system ports and at intervals on the transmission line, especially if it parallels a Beverage.

Breaking up the system in this manner keeps common mode currents at bay thus protecting the high directionality of the antennas. You can also wind the coax on a suitable ferrite toroid. It is very difficult to achieve high choking impedance on the low bands with an air core coax choke.

In conclusion, go ahead and use a coax choke if it suits the application. Remember to wind them properly, use reliable specifications or measure them yourself with a two port VNA and try to limit their use to one band rather than two or more. But don't expect more from them than they can deliver.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Call History

For the first time I made use of a call history file in a contest this weekend. It was the North American QSO Party (NAQP) CW contest. To those unfamiliar with this feature of modern contest logger software a call history file contains fixed exchange information cross-referenced with call sign. For example, in NAQP when you enter a call sign and tab to the exchange it will be pre-filled with RON for the name and ON for the state/province/country.

I want to talk about the how and why of call history usage and philosophical objections. The mechanics of call history can be found in the manual for your favourite contest logging software. I will not provide a tutorial.

This screen capture shows what I get when I enter the call of my friend VE3JM -- a dedicated contester with a big antenna farm. After I enter the call sign and call him by pressing enter (ESM, or by manually tabbing to the exchange) the software pulls exchange data from the call history file. The exchange can be left as is, saving typing, or overwritten with what is copied by the operator.

Call history is not the only source for pre-filled exchange data. It is typical that for stations already worked the exchange data can be pre-filled from the current contest log. For these contacts the call history only assists with the first time a station is worked in the contest. Some exchange data requires neither since it can be often be derived from the call sign. Examples include CQ and ITU zones, Canadian provinces, etc.

An extract of the N1MM call history file for NAQP surrounding my own call looks like this:
You can create a call history file from your own past logs. However it is usually better to use one like the one depicted (compiled by VE2FK) since it is current, cross-checked against logs from many people and will include entries for stations you do not have in your old logs. I used a different publicly available call history file in NAQP. I probably ought to have used Claude's since the one I used had problems, as I'll discuss later.

It should be obvious that call history cannot help you with serial numbers and other unpredictable exchange fields. A wise contester will always verify that the pre-filled exchange data is the same as what you copy. Trust your ears. Override the pre-filled data as necessary. The call history saves typing but should never be relied upon as a primary source.

The exchange in some contests is so predictable that a call history file is unnecessary. A good example is CQ WW in which the zone number can almost always be uniquely derived from the call sign. In cases where it is wrong call history can help as can other data sources used by modern contest logging software.

Why I used call history

I practiced SO2R (single-op, 2 radios) in the RAC winter contest last month at a more intense level. That includes running on two bands at once. The RAC contest exchange does not benefit much from a call history file since the exchange is either unpredictable (serial number) or very predictable (province).

That went well enough that I decided to apply the lessons learned to NAQP CW this month. I used call history as an insurance policy in case I found myself getting confused or out of sync between radios that would cause a lapse of concentration when copying the exchange. It did indeed help by lowering my stress level. SO2R novice mistakes due to the stress of operating two radios simultaneously were reduced.

That said the benefit was not large. Once a station was worked the pre-fill from previously working them on another band took precedence over call history. That's a good thing since call history does not always predict what the other station sends.

What to watch for

Call history is not reliable. Give more credence to what your ears hear that what the call history pre-fill provides. There are several reasons:
  • The call history file includes errors. Logging errors from previous contests reappear when those logs are used to build the call history file. This is true whether it is built from your own logs or that of others. Typos and copying errors of name and state/province were not uncommon with the call history file I imported for use in NAQP.
  • NAQP brings out the weirdness in some people. Very strange names may be used just on a whim or out of perverse pleasure. This is completely within the rules. Other contests have their own variation of this whimsy. One example is sending 000 as the power by KP4 and KP2 hams in a previous ARRL DX contest to draw attention to the failed power grid due to a hurricane.
  • NAQP has become a means of paying tribute to recently passed on contesters and prominent hams. For example, many Florida participants used the name Walt to commemorate the recent passing of W7SE.
  • Special multiplier stations in many regional contests send section/county/region other than what is usual, and may even be in a different format. I most recently ran into this one in the Worked All Germany (WAG) contest.
The lesson is to expect the unexpected. Call history is an operating aid not a crutch. Put too much of your weight on it and it will break, resulting is substantial penalties during log checking.

Philosophical perspective

As a matter of operating ethics I remain leery of the call history files, whether those compiled by others or from my own historical contest logs. Pre-fills reduce operator involvement in the QSO by reducing the need to fully copy and enter the exchange. The mental effort of doing these tasks adds stress by increasing operator focus to ensure no mistakes are made with a consequent penalty during log checking by the contest sponsor.

It's a philosophical issue, one with adherents and proponents on both sides of the question. The matter appears to be far less controversial than some others such as excess power and remote receivers yet it does raise interesting questions of just what skill set exemplifies excellence in contesting. Until now I was of the opinion that I ought to copy the full exchange.

Call history is not the only exchange copying aid:
  • Current contest log: Fixed exchange data is pre-filled from previous contacts with the same station, usually on another band.
  • Country file: Zone and country by prefix or individual call sign are pre-filled. This can be especially helpful when working Americans because their call signs do not correlate with a zone or country. For example, a KH6 in the continental US and vice versa.
  • Super check partial: Master data base of call signs appearing in contest logs. It is used to correct call sign copying errors. Not really a pre-fill aid but it does reduce the importance of paying attention. I always confirm a call if I substitute an SCP recommended replacement.
With all these operating aids reducing the need for careful listening and typing is the use of call history a significant factor. Incrementalism can be insidious. Just like adding a fraction of a decibel at a time with station improvements you eventually have a very big signal the use of call history is one more incremental change reducing the required skill to be a top contester.

Does it matter? Until now I believed that it does, which is why I have not used call history. I also felt uncomfortable when I enabled SCP. Yet I've never had a qualm about pre-fills from the current contest log. Operating ethics is a slippery concept. I see no clear answer. Resorting to using the same aids as your competitors is understandable.

I don't expect to use call history in many contests and I may decide to stop using it altogether. Most contesters do not share my misgivings and perhaps they're right. It's an individual choice based on one's personal view. I will not judge others.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

L7 Amplifier New Filter/Rectifier Board

During the ARRL 160 meter contest my Drake L7 kilowatt amplifier failed. It happened while I was checking email during an off period. There was an almighty bang and the amp went dark. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of light in the darkness under the operating desk where the power supply is located. I didn't leap too far out of my seat but it was startling.

The problem was easy to diagnose. The amplifier is ~40 years old and has the original filter capacitors in the high voltage power supply. Electrolytic capacitors have a finite lifetime, especially high voltage ones of an earlier generation. I made a note to replace them at some point. Of course I didn't.

A temporary repair to route around the failed capacitor was attempted so that I could run the amplifier at its lower B+ setting. It didn't work properly so I continued the contest without the amplifier.

There are two filter/rectifier boards in the power supply, one for each side of the full wave rectifier. The large cylindrical parts are 220 μF 450 VDC electrolytic capacitors wired in series to give 55 μF at 1800 VDC. They see half the 2800 VDC of the no-load plate voltage (B+).

You should have no difficulty identifying the failed part in the picture above. I cleaned the power supply and surface it was on of the solid mass and liquid electrolyte that escaped from the ruptured capacitor. The material is not dangerous to clean up if you are careful to wash your hands afterward.

Pricing of the individual parts is not high but inconvenient to order and would not easily fit on the original PCBs. For a modest premium I ordered the Harbach Electronics PM400 kit that includes all the parts and one PCB. Modern electrolytic capacitors of the same rating are much smaller so it all fits on one PCB.

The kit is excellent. I had heard good report of Harbach's amplifier kits and I was not disappointed. The parts and PCB look excellent and, perhaps most important, there are detailed instructions for installing the new board in vintage equipment like my L7. The instructions proved accurate, right down to the length and colour of wires in the power supply.

After I assembled the new filter/rectifier board it sat on my work bench for a couple of weeks. It was the holidays and my free time was spent on a variety of other projects. Then the ice storm hit. I was so relieved after repairing the 80 meter array that I dove in that very evening to install the board in the power supply.

Installation was quick and went smoothly. I carried it upstairs to the shack and plugged it in. It worked perfectly. My first QSO using it was ZC4UW on 160 meters, with whom I had been unable to complete a QSO running 200 watts.

Voltage and other operating parameters are the same as before. The power output is limited by the plate transformer not the power supply filter and rectifier so there is no increase in power output.

The pair of 3-500 tubes is capable of more than the L7 delivers with the relatively low anode voltage and current capacity. I have no intention of replacing the transformer.

I am now ready for the CQ WW 160 contest later this month. Eventually I will have a second and more modern amplifier added to my station for high power SO2R and multi-op contesting. It made good sense to start with an inexpensive vintage amplifier. Despite this understandable failure the L7 has not disappointed.

Friday, January 3, 2020

80 Meter Stinger Version 3.0

As I wrote several days ago an ice storm damaged my 80 meter vertical yagi. Weight of ice on the catenaries ropes supporting the parasitic wire elements was too much for the stinger at the top of the tower driven element. Unequal ice weight on the four wire elements was a factor, probably a result of partial tree cover on the southeast element and the variety of rope diameters being used.

This is the second stinger to fail. The first one failed due to expedience: I made a couple of poor material choices because I was in a rush at the time. The second stinger survived winds well over 100 kph last summer and I thought it was strong enough to last a while. However ice is often a greater hazard than wind, and around here ice is more common than high winds. Obviously I did not design the stinger well enough.

The stinger failed where the 1.5" OD tube joins to the 1.9" OD pipe below it. This is a high stress point. After tearing the antenna apart and lowering the broken version 2 stinger I inspected the break.

I thought I had used 0.095" wall tube for this section. Turns out it was no more than 0.065" wall. Thinking back to when I built it I remembered that the 1" PVC pipe above it was slightly too large at 1.315" OD to fit inside the 0.095" wall 1.5" tube so I substituted a thinner wall tube. Amateur forensic analysis of the bent tube leads me to believe that this surplus tube is not 6061-T6 unlike the standard pipe sizes I've accumulated over the past few years.

We just had two days of balmy 5° C weather that was perfect for tower work. I dropped other projects to focus on repairing the 80 meter yagi. As the sun set on the second (and last) mild day the antenna was back in service. I had to work fast and not make the same expedience driven error I made the last time.

The version 3 stinger is exactly the same length as version 2. This is important since now that the antenna is tuned and the matching networks are fixed changes would consume far too much time and be very uncomfortable in our winter weather.

I reused the lower 1.9" OD pipes since they were undamaged. The lower pipe was left on the tower. The broken 1.5" tube required effort to remove since it was distorted by the bend. It was replaced by a 1" schedule 40 6061-T6 pipe and reducer already fabricated for another antenna project.

I slipped it into the 1.9" pipe and drilled the new pipe through the outer pipe's existing splice holes. This was quick and allowed the stainless hardware to be reused. Beware cutting debris on stainless threads since that is guaranteed to seize and destroy the fasteners. I learned this the hard way some time ago. Brush the threads clean before tightening.

The 1" pipe is shorter than the old 1.5" tube. I cut the undamaged top end of the 1.5" tube to reused the PVC top support and make up the missing length. The top segment of catenary ropes could be left in place which saved a lot of time.

With the broken tube as a length guide the tube and pipe were drilled and screwed together. Now all I had to do was install the new stinger. This is the most difficult part of the repair job.

Despite a couple of fumbles the new stinger was installed in a couple of hours. The dangling ropes inevitably tangled and had to be carefully separated and then held apart while I went up and down the tower attaching and suspending the four parasitic elements.

With that done I pushed the stinger to its full height and tightened up the tower clamps. Some lateral adjustment was needed since the force of the ice pushed the clamps out of vertical alignment.

Back on the ground I walked back and forth among the four element anchors carefully pulling them to working tension. It is important to do it in steps so that the stinger is not put under bending stress. It's tedious but necessary.

Finally it was done as the sun set. I cleaned the site, put away my tools and went indoors to check it out. The SWR was perfect in all of its directional and omni-directional modes. Mission accomplished.

Losing this antenna worried me because it keeps me competitive on 80 meters. The high inverted vee performs poorly on paths longer than 2000 km.

Now I have to hope for the best with stinger version 3.0. It is stronger but still a concern since it is quite tall and under stress during adverse weather events. Ideally I would like to increase the tower height and use a short stinger. It's in my plan though perhaps not this year.

All the ice storm damage to my antennas has now been repaired. It could have been worse and for that I'm thankful.